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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2016

Academics warn of dangerous dependency on international fees

When a professor at Acadia University found out administrators had adjusted a grade he’d handed out — to “accommodate” the needs of an international student — without consulting him, he felt angry and distraught.

Like the majority of his colleagues, the Acadia professor, who wishes to remain anonymous, says while he believes internationalization for the most part is highly beneficial for Canada’s universities and colleges, he’s concerned overseas students are being recruited to boost institutional coffers.

“Some of our international students are under an agreement with their government that they must pay for a course if they fail it. I’ve seen grades increased because of students indicating they couldn’t bear the financial hardship,” he said. “It’s not fair to the professor whose name is associated with the course and it’s not fair to the other students.”

In 1992, international students made up 3 per cent of the post-secondary student population in Canada. By, 2014, the proportion had increased to almost 10 per cent. British Columbia has experienced the largest growth in international students, who now represent 16.4 per cent of the student population, followed by Nova Scotia (15.8 per cent) and New Brunswick (15.7 per cent).

“Overall, internationalization is very positive for our institutions,” said University of Northern British Columbia history professor Jacqueline Holler. “As an example, it is clear that the presence of international students in Prince George increases global consciousness, enriches the perspectives brought into the classroom, and is changing the cosmopolitan nature of this remote community.”

Holler, who is looking at the impact of international student growth on academic staff workloads for CAUT, notes there are significant perils when post-secondary institutions allow the bottom line to drive their internationalization agenda. For one, she worries that “international students are at risk of exploitation” for being treated like “cash cows” in the face of government funding shortfalls.

International students are increasingly seen as revenue generating opportunities for cash-strapped institutions. In the 2015–2016 academic year, the average international student in Canada will pay $21,932 in tuition fees — a number that is three times higher than what do­mestic students will pay. While institutions spend a lot of time and energy getting international students through the door, resources for their success once at university are often lacking.

In Australia, universities have long relied on international student income to make up the gap in reduced government funding of students places. In fact, international students now make up between 20 per cent and 30 percent of the total enrolment at most universities, and represent the country’s third biggest source of foreign exchange earnings.

“The actual experience of international students is mixed, but unfortunately for many it does not live up to expectations. International students cross-subsidize domestic students, but they suffer from the same problems as local students of overcrowded classes and scarce academic attention because over half of our teaching is casualized. Contract academics are paid for just a few hours work, but then students rely on them putting in free labour to mark their work properly and answer their queries,” notes Jeannie Rea, who heads the National Tertiary Education Union.

“There is the worry that universities and colleges are developing a dangerous dependency on international students simply for the revenue streams they generate,” said CAUT executive director David Robinson. “We need to ensure that these commercial imperatives don’t override the academic values and integrity of our institutions.”

The anonymous Acadia professor is a living example that those worries are real. He says academic staff in his department have been told by deans and directors not to enforce their academic standards or prosecute plagiarism “because plagiarism is acceptable in some cultures.”

The same situation has arisen in Australia where, according to Rea, the increasing use of on-line classes creates an anonymous environment where some students are preyed upon by unscrupulous individuals and companies seeking to supply essays and even sit exams for a price.

“Academic staff are under pressure to ‘go easy’ on international students because the university management does not want to prejudice their income stream,” Rea said.

International students are facing tremendous challenges on campus, says Bilan Arte, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. “They need specific support tailored to their needs and difficulties but unfortunately the fact remains that the structural support isn’t there.”

She said at the University of Manitoba, where she was a student advocate, “there were only a couple of international student support workers to counsel, provide aca­demic advising, and offer information on student visa requirements, while also giving emotional support for culture shock and financial stress.”

Where institutional support is inadequate, Holler says academic staff are facing additional workload issues in trying to provide guidance and help for international students trying to navigate unfamiliar experiences or facing racism.

“Faculty, especially immigrant faculty, end up taking on more of a role in providing academic, emotional and cultural support,” Holler said. “Academic staff want to see international students succeed, but the way to accomplish this is through increased institutional support, not compromising aca­demic standards.”